Iowa Governor Grants Felons Right to Vote, Ending State’s Holdout Status

August 5, 2020 Updated: August 6, 2020

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order on Aug. 5 giving all but a few categories of convicted felons the right to vote after they satisfy their sentences, ending the Hawkeye State’s status as the sole remaining state to deny voting rights to most felons.

Reynolds, a Republican, followed through on a vow she made months ago to sign such an order. She said she would continue to urge the state legislature to approve a state constitutional amendment enshrining the change that would block future governors from reversing it with the stroke of a pen.

“It boils down to our fundamental belief in redemption and second chances,” she said at a signing ceremony. “It’s a big step for so many on the road to redemption and proving to themselves and maybe to others that their crimes or convictions do not define them.”

Reynolds acknowledged publicly her own drunken driving arrests and bouts with alcoholism two decades ago before she received treatment and embraced sobriety. Felons, she has said, deserve a second chance, which includes letting them vote.

Recent policy changes in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia made Iowa the only state remaining that failed to restore felons’ voting rights. Felons in Vermont and Maine are allowed to vote even while still serving their prison sentences. Sixteen states reportedly give the right to vote back after release from prison, and a separate 21 states restore it after the sentence is completed, including any applicable parole and probation.

Mark Stringer, executive director of the Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, praised Reynolds for acting.

“Iowa no longer is the only state in the country to permanently and for life ban its citizens from voting following any felony conviction,” Stringer said in a statement.

“We’re relieved that the governor’s order does not make eligibility to vote dependent on how much money a person has, that is, it’s not contingent on paying off fees and fines or other associated debts.”

Some Republicans in the state opposed the policy change, arguing that felons who owe financial restitution should have to pay it before regaining the vote. Activists representing Black Lives Matter and the NAACP denounced such proposals claiming they amounted to a poll tax preventing poor felons who can’t make the payments from getting their voting rights restored.

Not all felons will have their voting rights restored as a result of the governor’s order. Individuals convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, attempted murder, fetal homicide, and certain sex offenses are excluded from the order. They still have to petition the governor to get back the right to vote.

Although re-enfranchising felons is supported by some conservatives, the push for this political change comes largely from the left. Studies suggest that when felons regain the right to vote they are more likely to register as Democrats than Republicans.

Former President Barack Obama and Democrats have been campaigning for voting reform, including felon re-enfranchisement and, in some places, lowering the voting age from 18 in order to boost turnout and promote their party’s get-out-the-vote efforts.

In his July 30 eulogy for recently deceased Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and former civil rights activist, Obama urged officeholders to pass sweeping voting reforms, including felon re-enfranchisement.

“You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better,” Obama said.

“By making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance.

“By adding polling places, and expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are someone who is working in a factory, or you are a single mom who has got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot.”

President Donald Trump took aim at Obama hours before Reynolds signed her order, telling “Fox & Friends” it was “terrible,” “ridiculous,” and “totally inappropriate” for the former president to treat Lewis’s memorial service as an opportunity for political campaigning.

“I thought it was a terrible speech, it was an angry speech, it showed there’s anger there that people don’t see,” Trump said. “He lost control, and he’s been really hit very hard by both sides for that speech.”